Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Details, Details

I hope I’m not stepping on MaryAnn’s toes, here. I was so inspired by her post about world building, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned about filling in the nitty gritty details of the worlds we create. Who knows, maybe I’ll do a few running posts about this.

So, today:

World View and Word Choice

I've found that for characters to be real to me, they need to have a past, even if it's only intimated and not spelled out. Characters need to have been shaped by the world they lived in – the geography, the politics, the people, the struggles they faced (or didn’t). This, to me, is one of the components of the all important ‘Voice’ we hear so much about these days. It’s not just the attitude (snarky or otherwise) the author writes in, it’s how the characters see the world, and therefore react to it.

Ideally, this core understanding of the character's world view should be woven into the storyline. And one way I’ve found to do it is simply by the word choices you make when writing.


Okay, I may be a) narcissistic (I hope not), b) foolhardy (probably), or c) too exhausted to dig up stuff from published books (bingo), but I decided to try to use a few examples from my current WIP (may it be finished soon) to illustrate my point. Now, I’m not saying I’ve written this masterfully, or even correctly, but I hope you get the gist of what I’m trying to say about word choice helping to build a picture of a character's world view.

Here goes…

For some background on my WIP, MOTHER OF PEARL, see the query here (it’s also a wip, and I’m gratefully accepting any and all advice on it).

I’m in a little bit of a challenging situation – maybe even in over my head -  with this story. You see, each chapter is split into two parts, the first from Pearl’s point of view (third person, tight), and the second from Dyln’s (first person). To create two distinct voices telling one story, I've had to keep in mind each of their perspectives and the personal experiences that would have shaped their lives.


Dyln is from a coastal country. When I write him, I try to have him view things through the lens of his upbringing, and keep the way he speaks and thinks grounded in the idioms he would likely be familiar with. So, when he’s trying to tell Pearl about the irrelevance of his position in the world, instead of saying ‘I’m common as dirt,’ it seems more appropriate for him to say,

 ‘I’m common as sand.’

Likewise, when he’s just beginning to realize that he likes Pearl (and he’s still in pretty deep denial about it), an inner monologue starts with a reference to what he was familiar with:
Thoughts of Pearl washed up at the edges of sleep and in the midst of boredom.  

I'd hoped the imagery of waves pushing onto the shore would remind the reader of his background, and maybe even why he was in the process of deceiving Pearl so thoroughly.

Pearl, on the other hand, has spent her life hidden away in a deep desert. When she, along with her mother and Dyln, are kidnapped from her home, she’s sure they’ve got the wrong girl – there’s no way she could ever be the heiress to an underwater kingdom. The men place her in a wooden crate  for transport, where she has time to think about the possibililty of escape and saving those she loves. Ultimately, she realizes that for now, the only thing she can do is try to pretend, no matter how absurd, to be this princess.

The bar grated back, the door swung open. Torchlight streamed in, blinding Pearl to anything outside. “Come out.” It was the rough voice of the scarred man. What courage she had gathered melted away. Pearl shrank back. She’d wanted her freedom from walls so long, and now all she could do was huddle in the tiny space and wish the door would close again.

“Come out,” the man said again. He would fish her out like a mouse from an empty barrel. Princesses, or pretended princesses, should not be fished out quaking in fear. If she was going to do something to save her mother and Dyln, she needed to do it now.

Unlike waves on the shore, a mouse in an empty barrel would be something Pearl would have likely encountered, even with her sheltered life. It's entirely in keeping with her world view. And, in fact, barrels of stored food were mentioned in the second chapter, so there’s already an image of this possibility embedded in the reader's mind.

My thinking (and hope) is that by adding these small details and turns of phrase, the voices of the characters and their world will come across as richer and more authentic than they otherwise would have.

Hope this tip helps.



  1. This is one of those topics that's been on my mind lately. I love your examples and I'm really glad to see someone putting this technique to good use. I'm definitely going to use this in my own writing.

    Thanks Susan!

  2. You're not stepping on my toes at all. :)

    Excellent post, and great examples. It really is those small things that make the world and characters believable.

  3. Thank you for those tips! These ideas are making me want to dig out an old manuscript that this could help. But I'm not going to do it. Not right now...Really. I love you examples!


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